One of the frustrating aspects of reading the U.S. media’s coverage of Brexit is that you’d never get any idea why it happened in the first place. Brexit is treated, automatically, as some kind of pathology, a populist act of wanton self-harm, an absurd idea, etc etc. And from the perspective of an upstanding member of the left-liberal media establishment, that’s all true. If your idea of Britain is formed by jetting in and out of London, a multicultural, global metropolis that is as lively and European as any city on the Continent, you’d think that E.U. membership is a no-brainer. Now that the full hellish economic consequences of exit are in full view, what could possibly be the impulse to stick with it?
I get this. I would have voted Remain. I find London to be far more fun now than it was when I left the place. But allow me to suggest a parallel version of Britain’s situation — but with the U.S. The U.S. negotiated with Canada and Mexico to create a free trade zone called NAFTA, just as the U.K. negotiated entry to what was then a free trade zone called the “European Economic Community” in 1973. Now imagine further that NAFTA required complete freedom of movement for people across all three countries. Any Mexican or Canadian citizen would have the automatic right to live and work in the U.S., including access to public assistance, and every American could live and work in Mexico and Canada on the same grounds. This three-country grouping then establishes its own Supreme Court, which has a veto over the U.S. Supreme Court. And then there’s a new currency to replace the dollar, governed by a new central bank, located in Ottawa.
How many Americans would support this? How many votes would a candidate for president get if he or she proposed it? The questions answer themselves. It would be unimaginable for the U.S. to allow itself to be governed by an entity more authoritative than its own government. It would signify the end of the American experiment, because it would effectively be the end of the American nation-state. But this is precisely the position the U.K. has been in for most of my lifetime. The U.K. has no control over immigration from 27 other countries in Europe, and its less regulated economy has attracted hundreds of thousands of foreigners to work in the country, transforming its culture and stressing its hospitals, schools and transportation system. Its courts ultimately have to answer to the European Court. Most aspects of its economy are governed by rules set in Brussels. It cannot independently negotiate any aspect of its own trade agreements. I think the cost-benefit analysis still favors being a member of the E.U. But it is not crazy to come to the opposite conclusion.
More to the point, the European Economic Community has evolved over the years into something far more ambitious. Through various treaties — Maastricht and Lisbon, for example — what is now called the European Union (note the shift in language) has embarked on a process of ever-greater integration: a common currency, a common foreign policy and now, if Macron has his way, a common central bank. It is requiring the surrender and pooling of more and more national sovereignty from its members. And in this series of surrenders, Britain is unique in its history and identity. In the last century, every other European country has experienced the most severe loss of sovereignty a nation can experience: the occupation of a foreign army on its soil. Britain hasn’t. Its government has retained control of its own island territory now for a thousand years. More salient: this very resistance has come to define the character of the country, idealized by Churchill in the country’s darkest hour. Britain was always going to have more trouble pooling sovereignty than others. And the more ambitious the E.U. became, the more trouble the U.K. had.
As I said, I would have voted Remain. But I understand the legitimate arguments to Leave, and also would have respected the result of a referendum which attracted more votes than any general election in history. In 2016, both sides insisted that this was it: a clear and irrevocable choice. And when Leave won the referendum, it was incumbent to honor that result, as had been the case when a referendum in 1975 backed membership. That’s what democracy is: the peaceful acceptance of political defeat. And that’s why the refusal of the elites to accept their defeat would be a very mixed blessing. Staying in the E.U. — either formally or informally (as in the May compromise) — is a slap in the face to democracy. The right and parts of the rust belt left will see this as a function of an elite conspiracy to defy the will of the people, and they will radicalize still further. It was a mistake to hold the referendum. But it’s a deeper and more dangerous one to ignore its clear result.
And that is Boris Johnson’s core case: the people decided, the parliament invoked Article 50, and so it is vital for democracy that the U.K. exit without any continuing hassle or delay. If parliament is seen as dismissing the result of the referendum, then the parliament will effectively be at war with the people as a whole, and he will rally the people against them. It’s near perfect populism. His job is to get what the people voted for done, despite the elites. And if that is the central message of the coming election campaign he will not only win, but handily.